Thursday, 27 January 2011

Going out with a bang - Sihanoukville and the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan

Well, well, well. What a mental couple of weeks we've had, and with that, an incredible 8 months away. As most of you know we're back in the UK now, so at last we've had time to put together a post about Sihanoukville and Koh Phangan. We wanted to go out with a bang that's exactly how it ended up.

From Siem Reap we headed to Sihanoukville on the south coast of Cambodia (via Battambang, which is barely worth mentioning unfortunately, despite being one of The Lonely Planet guide's top five "highlights" - well done LP you did it again). With only three weeks left until our flight home we were determined to get as much sun as possible, and squeeze in as much partying as possible, what better destinations for both! In Sihanoukville we stayed a few minutes from the beach, where it felt like a small festival every night and there were rows and rows of candle-lit tables along the sand with countless BBQ's serving fresh Tuna steak, Barracuda, huge king prawns, and of course the usual beef, chicken, pork etc, not to mention a pint of ice cold beer for 50 cents (US)!!!

Big fat Tuna steaks and all sorts of other seafood, on ice next to beach

We arrived in Sihanoukville about 6 hours later than expected, because the transport in Cambodia is ridiculously disorganised. If you ever get a bus in Cambodia, multiply the journey time by 1.5 and you might not be as disappointed. Anyway, the late bus caused us problems. We wanted a nice cheap, but good Guesthouse near the beach, but so did everyone else, and their buses arrived in droves throughout the day, hours before we go there. We spent about 1/2 hour lugging our bags from one guesthouse to the other and in the end had no other option but to settle with a hostel called Utopia (the irony).

We had a 19 person dorm, where the beds were in two levels, all joined in a row next to each other, and the mattresses were pieces of foam that had clearly been run over by a steam roller - wafer thin. Still, it only cost us $2 a night
(almost everything is paid for in US$ by the way) and "it was only for one night". We dropped our stuff off in the dorm and had a quick beer in the quiet bar next to the hostel before going out for some food before a much needed early night. We strolled down to the beach, ate some nice food and then thought we'd just ask a local where was good for a party if we felt the need later. He said Utopia would be banging all night... Uh oh. Surely not, we were the only ones in there an hour ago and we did quite like the idea of sleeping at some point that night.

Back we went, and low and behold, a full on pool party was on, with buy one get one free 50 cent beers and all kinds of other ridiculously cheap drinks offers all night, people jumping (or being pushed) into the pool, and half of Sihanoukville partying hard.

The pool party at Utopia, our dorm is just off the to the side of the picture. It was almost pointless having walls.

After that there was no point trying to go to bed, our dorm was right next to the pool and the music was as loud there as it was outside... so the inevitable happened. We stayed up most of the night and joined the party which turned out to be pretty fun, and decided tomorrow we'd get up early and move to a nicer place.

That plan didn't really work, we woke up late and feeling rough so another night in utopia it was. Some more friends we'd met in Siem Reap arrived so the night turned out much the same as the one before. At last on the third day we managed to move to a private room down the road and could pick and choose whether we wanted to be in the party or not.

Me, Fia, Becky and Callum after we realise trying to go to sleep is pointless

The after party at JJ's down the road

As well as guzzling down buckets of Mekong Whiskey mixed with Redbull and Coke, 50 cent beers, and dancing like complete idiots to Barbara Streisand, we did an awesome boat trip with a company called Sun Tours. It was $25 for the day and we set off the next morning to visit three really nice islands down the coast, including snorkeling over a coral reef, fishing, an amazing Cambodian buffet with all sorts of culinary treats, aaaaaaaand, jumping of the top deck of the boat 7m down to the water below. Amazing!

Our boat, the top deck is 7m from the water.

Fia taking the plunge

It was actually one of the highlights, in fact I think our mate Glenn jumped off more than a dozen times. Whenever we needed anything from the bar on the lower deck we'd just jump off the top of the boat and swim round. Very cool. We also did a small trek to a secluded beach on another island and waded through a mangrove swamp later in the afternoon. The guide warned us not to wee in the mangroves because there are nasty little barbed fish that swim up your plumbing and take up residence there. It was hard to relax after that.

Secluded island off the cost of Cambodia

Fishing boats heading out at sunset

To top off the day we headed down to the beach to have our last meal together before parting ways, followed by one last party in Sihanoukville - their newly put together "black moon party". Basically a very small version of the full moon party in Koh Phangan which was in some ways a much nicer experience - if it stays quite small it certainly won't be a bad thing. Between the BBQ and the party we were given free shots by the guys who ran the restaurant/bar/shack (called Musli's) and bought some fireworks which we were assured were safe to set off while holding them... I'm not 100% sure they were now that I think back on it, but the guy who sold them seemed very sure!

Free shots for dessert!

Me and Craig with the "safe" fireworks

Sihanoukville was very pleasantly surprising. We'd heard Serendipity beach, near where we stayed, was a bit of a shit hole and really touristy, but we found it to be very welcoming and a far cry from the likes of Phuket in Thailand. Although it had clearly been developed for tourists very recently it was still very welcoming, and felt like it's still part of the real Cambodia. The locals were very friendly and the population of tourists wasn't too high. Hopefully things won't grow too far out of proportion in the next few years. We'd definitely go back, especially seeing as it's all so cheap!

Fia doing fire poi on the beach

I *heart* Dolphin, the beginning of the party.

Glenn and Zoe, Abi and Craig, Me and Fia

As with the journey to Sihanoukville, getting away was equally as frustrating. An 11 hour journey (which meant we could connect with the next bus in Bangkok and arrive in Koh Phangan within 24 hours) turned out to take 16 hours. Balls. To make things worse I'd gotten some bites, or was having a strange reaction to something, possibly my malaria tablets, which was beginning to bother me. It was getting unbearably itchy but like you do, I decided to just leave it a see what happens.

We got the Bangkok at midnight. There was no hope of finding a bus to carry on south so we had to find a hostel for the night. Everywhere was full, after 1/2 hour we found one place with a free room, it was the last one so we paid through the nose for it and took it. By the time we'd worked out a plan for the ext day it was 3am. The plan involved getting up at 6am to get back on the road. Awesome, three hours sleep, increasingly itchy everything and getting worse, and we just paid double price for this crappy room. After yet more faffing in the morning we found a bus at 9:30am to take us to Surat Thani where we could link up with a ferry and finally get to Koh Phangan. That didn't happen either! We could only find one ferry company who booked ferry's and they pretty much refused to sell us the night boat ticket, which we were very annoyed about at the time. We're not even sure why now, but it turned out for the best. On seeing my arms, Jimmy the tour operator immediately told me to hop on his bike and he took me to the doctor around the corner, turns out it wasn't something that was going to go away, or stop getting worse without injections at the hospital.

You can imagine how sketchy the Thai hospital was... but no. To my surprise it was actually the best hospital I've ever seen. Immaculate, I was seen immediately, blood test given, results within an hour, two injections and a pack of pills later and I was feeling better already, and it only cost me £20. What a relief.

Minging bites / rash

The next day we arrived in Koh Phangan, what we hoped would take 24 hours had taken us 60 hours, but the next day we met Bod and the final party began, the sun was beaming down on us and we were very happy.

The first night we landed an awesome little bungalow no more than 20m from the beach in Ban Tai, Koh Phangan. The resort was called Seagate Resort and it was a lovely spot to unwind after the long journey. Their Thai food menu was very good and the little shack/bar on the beach was an amazing spot to watch sunset with a cold bottle of Beer Chang.

Our beach-side bungalow

Looking back at the resort, so peaceful.

From Ban Tai we headed to Haad Rin for 5 days, the heart of the Full Moon party area. Luckily the 19 person dorm we'd booked was clean and waaaaaaaaaaay better than any of us could imagine. On arrival David, the owner of Dancing Elephant Hostel, gave us all an hour long lecture on how not to end up in hospital, in a 3m x 3m prison cell without a passport and £2,000 worse off, beaten up, set on fire, or lost at sea. At first it seemed a bit overkill but as within moments of the sun going down it was obvious that this advice was extremely important. As usual it was the people staying in the hostel that really made it what it was. David was brilliant at creating an atmosphere that promoted making friends and the whole thing from start to finish was an incredible experience.

Our library of photos for this part of the trip isn't that great because taking Fia's camera out on Full moon night, or any night when we might drink a bucket of Sang Som, was just plain stupid. The first two nights turned into a foam party with people getting covered head to toe in foam, soaked through, covered in sand, falling off picnic benches, and throwing their flip flops into the sea shouting at the sky. Hmmm, don't know who that was...

The buckets there are so strong and so cheap it's dangerous. In your mind one bucket equals one drink, so you get another after the first, after all they only cost £3 - £4 each, that's one pint in England. By then you've already had 350ml of Sang Som (Thai rum), mixed only with one can of coke and a bottle of the dodgey Thai redbull, or even more ridiculous M-150, and you don't really need another one! Beyond that it all goes a bit blurry and before you know it it's 5am.

The bucket stands, check out the signage!

FOOOOAAAAM! Can you spot the Bod? (Photo courtesy of Mike Pennington)

Luckily we managed to avoid taking part fire limbo, or jumping over the giant skipping rope dowsed in Diesel and set on fire. I mean lucky too, everywhere you looked there were people on crutches, bandaged up or bleeding / burnt.
There was a guy at Full Moon with his who had clearly been injured the previous night, but that wasn't going to stop him. Tucked down the back of his bright pink short-shorts were his crutches, then in his hands were two buckets of Sang Som - good to see he got his priorities right!

Fire Limbo, insane. one guy lit a cigarette on his way under and it was a notch or two lower than this guy is doing. Impressive stuff.

Someone getting wiped out by the flaming skipping rope of doom! Not impressive, just plain dumb.

Apparently the local authoratative figures (rumoured to be mafia) know that it's dangerous and actively encourage it, the doctors wouldn't get paid without all the accidents. In 2 years the number of doctors clinics has risen from 2 to 27 because it makes so much money! We were told the bars all sell glass bottles of beer, whilst no bins are provided, so that the bottles end up on the floor (and unfortunately in the sea as well) meaning broken shards of glass gets walked into the sand and anyone who doesn't know about it and walks bare foot gets cut up and needs medical assistance. The same goes for loads of things on the island. Hiring a moped can be disastrous. The contracts on the bikes state that the user has to pay huge fees to fix any repairs. The guy below us didn't heed David's advice and unfortunately he slipped off the bike giving it just a few minor scratches, he was ordered to pay a few hundred quid before he got his passport back. We even heard they over inflate the tyres to increase the likelihood of accidents on the sandy roads. I'm probably sounding like a goody goody by highlighting these negatives but it is interesting to know these things, especially when a few simple improvements would stop the beaches around Haad Rin from being trashed and less people getting broken in the process. It was a very fun experience though, thankfully we were fortunate to receive the warnings so we could have a ridiculously mental, but slightly safer time.

The Full Moon Party itself was basically a bigger, more mental version of the nights leading up to it. Before everyone went out we went shopping for the most stupid looking day-glow vests and things we could find, along with fluorescent body paint, plastic necklaces, rings, and glasses. The beach was absolutely rammed, 20,000+ people swarm to Haad Rin for the Full Moon night. It's probably about as mental as you can imagine. Everyone stays up all night and at around 7am the sun rises at Sunrise beach (erm, hence the name...). Unfortunately for us, just as the sun came up, an old guy, probably in his 60's or 70's, resembling a wizard appeared. He was wearing a purple robe. Shortly after he appeared he de-robed and ran into the sea naked. Who knows what happened to him after that, we reckon he came to the original Full Moon party, lost his ticket home and has been there ever since.

Sunrise beach the night after the Full Moon Party

Aside from going completely bonkers and probably shaving 5 years off our lives, we did also get out to a few of the more idyllic beaches on the island. First off we went to Ban Mae Hat to the north. A boat trip was really expensive so we haggled for a taxi and got what we paid for... 15 people in a small pick up, I had to hang off the back and there are also two people sharing the front passenger seat! The beach was pretty nice, a sandy spit joined the beach with the island Koh Ma.

Getting cosey on the way to the beach

Holding on tight!

The Dancing Elephant crew in front of Koh Ma

My favourite though, was "Bottle Beach" (thankfully not named because it's covered in smashed bottles like Sunrise beach) also known as Ban Khuat. Again we haggled pretty hard and got a good price, this time there was ample seating but the guys driving the boat were about 12 years old! Still we made it and the day was amazing.

Have you got a license for that, mate?

Thai long boat at Bottle Beach

Sunset at Sunset beach (the opposite side of the headland to Sunrise beach where all the madness happens)

After 5 days of madness and little sleep it was time to say bye to all our new friends, and also the Bod, who was heading north to Chang Mei. Fia and I headed back to Seagate Resort in Ban Tai for one last Green Curry and amazing sunset before the 30 hour journey back to England. Needless to say we are very sad to know it's over, but being home has turned out to be quite nice so far. Now all we need to do is work our arses off so we can afford a 2 week holiday somewhere equally as exciting next year, and the year after, and the year after.

There will be one last post with all the highlights, top 5's, and various statistics from the trip. See you soon if we haven't already!